'It Was Time to Do More Than Protest': Activists Admit to 1971 FBI Burglary That Exposed COINTELPRO
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One of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era has been solved. On March 8, 1971, a group of activists — including a cabdriver, a day care director and two professors — broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa. They stole every document they found and then leaked many to the press, including details about FBI abuses and the then-secret counter-intelligence program to infiltrate, monitor and disrupt social and political movements, nicknamed COINTELPRO. They called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. No one was ever caught for the break-in. The burglars’ identities remained a secret until this week when they finally came forward to take credit for the caper that changed history. Today we are joined by three of them — John Raines, Bonnie Raines and Keith Forsyth; their attorney, David Kairys; and Betty Medsger, the former Washington Post reporter who first broke the story of the stolen FBI documents in 1971 and has now revealed the burglars’ identities in her new book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI."
Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now! of the episode: "This was quite a remarkable event. The Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI was the central office for a large region. There was an enormous amount of information stored there. The files were liberated, available for the public. And the—what was exposed was quite dramatic. For one thing, it turned out that the major activity of the FBI was essentially as a national political police. Fighting crime and other things were quite marginal. And their activities as a national political police were extremely significant. They were—a large part of it was the program that was called COINTELPRO. That was a massive government subversion operation. It started in the late '50s, but it really picked up through the 1960s. The first target was naturally the Communist Party, but it very quickly moved on to Puerto Rican independence, Native American movement, the entire New Left, the women's movement. The major target was black nationalist movements, which were practically decimated.
And it—the activities, the subversive activities, went from defamation, character assassination, efforts to create conflicts within groups by spreading false rumors and so on, all the way up to direct political assassination. 1969 was the peak. It was the assassination of Fred Hampton, the black organizer in Chicago, very effective organizer. Turns out—turned out—this didn’t come out from Media, but a couple years later it came out in court cases that the FBI had tried to have him assassinated by a black gang in Chicago, Blackstone Rangers. They sent fake messages written in kind of their version of black dialect to the Rangers, saying that Fred Hampton and the Panthers were trying to kill their main leader, hoping that the Rangers would react by killing him. Well, they were closely enough integrated so that that didn’t work. And right after that, the FBI essentially set up an assassination. They faked information that the Hampton apartment had guns. They gave it to the Chicago police. The Chicago police broke in at, you know, 4:00 in the morning, murdered Hampton, who was sleeping in bed, maybe drugged, and Mark Clark, another organizer. It turned out that Hampton’s bodyguard was an FBI informer. There was—the police pretended that they had been defending themselves from fire, but it turned out very quickly that all the firing was into the apartment. This was—I mean, this is pretty serious business, going up to Gestapo-style assassination. And, in fact, the black nationalist groups were decimated, and many others were disrupted.
Well, part of that came out from the Media files, but the major exposure was the extent to which theFBI was functioning as a political police, a national political police, as distinct from the pretext that they’re somehow defending us from crime. That’s kind of on a par with the claims that, you know, international—we should call it what it is, international terrorism—like, say, the drone campaign—is intended somehow to defend us. It has quite different aims. And, in fact, whenever the government pleads security, we should be very skeptical. That’s—for one thing, it’s kind of predictable. That’s the plea no matter what is exposed. You can think of that in connection with the Snowden exposures. So, since it’s predictable, it really doesn’t tell you anything. And when you look closely, it turns out that those pretexts quite typically dissolve rapidly on exposure, as is the case with the revelation of what the FBI was in fact doing under four administrations. It was finally—at least in theory, this was all stopped by the courts in the early 1970s, but undoubtedly, similar operations go on. [inaudible] can’t be on that scale anymore. That was unusual. But it’s very significant."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Nermeen Shaikh: Today, we will spend the rest of the hour unraveling one of the great mysteries of the Vietnam War era. On March 8th, 1971, a group of eight activists, including a cab driver, a daycare director and two professors, broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., and stole every document they found. The activists, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, soon began leaking shocking details about FBI abuses to the media. Among the documents was one that bore the mysterious word "COINTELPRO."
Amy Goodman: No one involved in the break-in was ever caught. Their identities remained a secret until this week. Today, three of the FBI burglars will join us on the show, but first I want to turn to a new short film produced by the nonprofit news organization Retro Report for The New York Times. It’s entitled "Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets."
Narrator: It’s the greatest heist you’ve never heard of and one of the most important.
Harry Reasoner: Last March, someone broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pa., stole some records and mailed copies of them around to the several newspapers.
N: Those records would help bring an end to J. Edgar Hoover’s secret activities within the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
John Chancellor: He ordered his agents not only to expose New Left groups, but to take action against them to neutralize them.
Unidentified: Many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI.
N: The burglars were never caught, and the details have remained a mystery until now. A new book, "The Burglary," reveals for the first time who did it and how they used a crowbar to pry open one of the best-kept and darkest secrets in American history.
John Raines: We were early whistleblowers before whistleblowers were known as such.
N: The burglars are stepping out of the shadows just as new revelations about secret intelligence operations have many people asking, "How much is too much when personal privacy is at stake?"
In the spring of 1970, the war in Vietnam was raging.
JC: American battle deaths in Vietnam now number 40,142.
N: And at home, antiwar protesters and law enforcement officers were violently clashing.
Bonnie Raines: It felt like a nightmare was unfolding. I took what was outrage and horror about what was going on, and I realized that I had to take it somewhere.
N: Bonnie Raines worked at a daycare center in Philadelphia. Her husband John taught religion at Temple University. They were the very picture of a golden couple.
BR: We had an eight-year-old, a six-year-old and a two-year-old. We were family folks who also wanted to keep another track active in our lives, which was political activism.
N: That activism attracted the attention of the FBI. Its director, the powerful and feared J. Edgar Hoover, perceived the antiwar movement, which ranged from radical revolutionaries to peaceful protesters, as a threat to national security.
BR: At one rally, I had one of my children on my back, and not only did they take my picture, but they took her picture.
N: Protesters like the Raines became increasingly convinced the FBI was conducting a covert campaign against them, tapping their phones and infiltrating antiwar groups.
JR: We knew the FBI was systematically trying to squash dissent. And dissent is the lifeblood of democracy.
N: Determined to get proof, the FBI was crossing the line, fellow activist and Haverford physics professor William Davidon hatched a plan. He reached out to the Raines and six others, including a social worker, a graduate student and a taxi driver named Keith Forsyth.
Keith Forsyth: We agreed to meet someplace where we could talk. And he says, "What would you think about the idea of breaking into an FBI office?" And I look at him, and I’m like, "You’re serious, aren’t you?" I was pretty vehement in my opposition to the war, and I felt like marching up and down the street with a sign was not cutting it anymore. And it was like, OK, time to — time to kick it up a notch.
N: The crew decided to break into a small FBI field office in Media, Pa.
KF: Once I got over the shock of thinking that this was the nuttiest thing I’d ever heard in my life, I’m like, this is a great idea, because we’re not going to make any allegations; we’re going to take their own paperwork, signed by their own people, including J. Edgar Hoover, and give it to the newspapers. So, let’s see you argue with that.
N: In the Raines’ third-floor attic, the team divvied up responsibilities and assigned tasks. They hung maps to learn about the neighborhood, planned escape routes, and they took extensive notes on the comings and goings in the building.
KF: I signed up for a correspondence course in locksmithing. That was my job, to get us in the door. Practiced several times a week. After a month, you get pretty good.
N: Bonnie was assigned the job of going inside and casing the office.
BR: I was to call the office and make an appointment as a Swarthmore student doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI. So they gave me an appointment. I tried to disguise myself as best I could, and I went to say goodbye, and I acted confused about where the door was, and that gave me a chance then to check out both rooms and know where the file cabinets were.
N: Bonnie discovered there was no alarm system and no security guards. She also found a second door leading inside.
JR: When she came back with that news, we became convinced, yes, I think we can get this done. We had more to lose than anybody else in the group, because we had these kids.
BR: We faced the reality of, if we were arrested and on trial, we would be in prison for very many years. He had to make some plans for that.
N: With a solid understanding of how they would conduct the break-in, they now needed to figure out when.
JR: March 8th, 1971, Frazier and Ali were fighting for the championship of the world. And we had the feeling that maybe the cops might be a little bit distracted.
N: While the crew waited at a nearby hotel, Forsyth arrived at the office alone.
KF: Pull up, walk up to the door, and one of the locks is a cylinder tumbler lock, not a pin tumbler lock. And I just about had a heart attack. Bottom line is, I could not pick that lock.
N: They almost called it off. But that second door that Bonnie noticed gave them another chance.
KF: At that point, you know that you’re going to have to wing it. Knelt down on the floor, picked the lock in like 20 seconds. There was a deadbolt on the other side. I had a pry bar with me, a short crowbar. I put the bar in there and yanked that sucker. At one point, I heard a noise inside the office. And I’m like, "Are they in there waiting for me?" Basically said to myself, "There’s only one way to find out: I’m going in."
N: Next, the inside crew walked into an empty office wearing business suits and carrying several suitcases. They cleaned out file cabinets and then made their way downstairs to the getaway car and drove off unnoticed. The group reconvened at a farmhouse an hour’s drive away and started unpacking.
KF: We were like, "Oh, man, I can’t believe this worked." We knew there was going to be some gold in there somewhere.
JR: Each of the eight of us were sorting files, and all of a sudden you’d hear one of them, "Oh, look! Look at this one! Look!"
N: After several long nights digging for documents that looked the most revealing, the burglars sent copies to journalists, including Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger.
Betty Medsger: And the cover letter was from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, and the first file that I read was about a group of FBI agents who were told to enhance the paranoia in the antiwar movement and to create an atmosphere that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox.
N: Attorney General John Mitchell asked the Post not to write about the stolen documents, saying it could endanger lives.
BM: The attorney general called two key editors and tried to convince them not to publish.
N: But the Post did publish the story, on the front page. It was the first of several reports and told how agents turned local police, letter carriers and switchboard operators into informants.
BM: There were very strong editorials calling for an investigation of the FBI.
N: Another stolen document would prove even more explosive: a routing slip marked with a mysterious word, "COINTELPRO." While reporters tried to uncover its meaning, the FBI was desperate to find the burglars. The bureau put nearly 200 agents on the investigation. Hoover’s best lead was the college girl who had visited their office.
BR: His command was "Find me that woman!"
N: Agents actively searched for Bonnie, but there were many antiwar activists who fit her description.
JR: We could hide within, you know, thousands of people. There were so many of us who were active.
N: Two years later, NBC reporter Carl Stern figured out the meaning of that word, COINTELPRO.
JC: Secret FBI memos made public today show that the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered a nationwide campaign to disrupt the activities of the New Left without telling any of his superiors about it.
Carl Stern: Many of the techniques were clearly illegal. Burglaries, forged blackmail letters and threats of violence were used.
N: The FBI initially defended its actions.
Clarence Kelley: The government would have been derelict in its duty, had it not taken measures to protect the fabric of our society.
N: But the bureau’s techniques were worse and the targets more far-reaching than the burglars ever imagined.
David Brinkley: Diplomats, government employees, sports figures, socially prominent persons, senators and congressmen.
Walter Cronkite: The FBI at one time sought to blackmail the late Martin Luther King into committing suicide.
U: Marriages were destroyed. Violence was encouraged. Many Americans were tapped and bugged, had their mail opened by the CIA and the FBI, and their tax returns used illegally.
AG: An extended excerpt from "Stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s Secrets," a short film produced by Retro Report for The New York Times. To watch the full video, visit RetroReport.org.
When we come back, three of the activists join us in studio — Keith Forsyth, Bonnie and John Raines — as well as the former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who first broke the story of the stolen FBI documents in 1971. This week, she revealed the identities of the burglars in her new book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI." We’ll go back in time and talk about today, as well. This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.
NS: Joining us now in our studio are three of the activists who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pa., on March 8th, 1971. The break-in led to revelations about the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program that targeted activists across the country.
None of the burglars were ever caught. On Tuesday, their identities were revealed for the very first time. Keith Forsyth, Bonnie Raines and John Raines all lived in Philadelphia in 1971. Forsyth was working as a cab driver. He was chosen to pick the lock at the FBI office. Bonnie and John Raines hosted many of the planning meetings for the burglary at their home, where they were raising three children. Bonnie, who worked as a daycare director, helped case the FBI office by posing as a college student interested in becoming an FBI agent. John Raines was a veteran of the Freedom Rides movement and a professor at Temple University. He used a Xerox machine at the school to photocopy many of the stolen documents.
AG: We’re also joined by Betty Medsger, author of the new book, "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI." Medsger first reported on the stolen documents while working at The Washington Post. She uncovered the identities of most of the burglars in her new book.
And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Keith, I want to begin with you. Talk about the time and how you ended up going into the FBI office. What spurred you on?
KF: So, at that time, we had just, within a few years, gone through the sort of peak of the civil rights movement, and many of the laws, like the Voting Rights Act, had been passed some years before, but the reality of racial justice was still far from complete. There were — the war in Vietnam was raging at that point in time. And so, there were many, many people who were working for change in those areas, in particular.
My main focus at that time was the antiwar movement. I was, you know, spending as much time as I could with organizing against the war, but I had become very frustrated with legal protest — didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. The government wasn’t listening. The war was escalating and not de-escalating. And I think what really pushed me over the edge was, shortly after the invasion of Cambodia, there were four students killed at Kent State and two more killed at — at Jackson State. And — I’m sorry, I’d think I’d have this down after all these years. And that really pushed me over the edge, that it was time to do more than just — than just protest and just march with a sign. And I joined the so-called Catholic Left, which is where I met John and Bonnie and also Bill Davidon. And from there, the next step was the Media action.
NS: Keith, could you also talk about how you were invited to join this plan to break into — by William Davidon?
KF If memory serves, he called me on the phone and asked —
AG: And explain who William Davidon was.
KF: Oh, I’m sorry. Bill Davidon, at that time, was a professor of physics at Haverford College, and I knew him mainly as a fellow activist in the peace movement. He was very prominent in Philadelphia in both the legal and the illegal peace movements. And he called me on the phone one day and asked me if I wanted to come to a party, which was code for an action. And I believe I said, "Sure, I’m always up for a party." You can check the FBI transcript, because they were tapping his phone at the time. And so, we met at an outdoor location, where we couldn’t be bugged, and he presented the idea to me then.
AG: And, Bonnie Raines, talk about your involvement. What motivated you? You were a young mother of three.
AG: How old were your children?
BR: They were eight, six and two at that time. We’ve since had a fourth child. I became involved, as Keith said, beginning with the civil rights movement and when we lived in New York and were students. Then we moved to Philadelphia, very much opposed to the war in Vietnam, and found a whole community of activists in Philadelphia. We became acquainted with the — what was called the Catholic Left at that time. And the Berrigan brothers, Bill and Dan, were the leaders in that. And we participated with that group, called the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives, in a draft board raid. We went into a draft board in the middle of the night as part of the draft resistance movement.
AG: Where was that?
BR: In North Philadelphia, a draft board in North Philadelphia. We targeted that draft board because it was in one of the poorest sections of the city, where they were bringing many, many, many young, poor young men into the armed forces to be sent as cannon fodder to Vietnam. Our government was lying to us about the casualties, both civilian and military casualties. So I participated, along with John, in going into a draft board and removing files and destroying those files so those young men could not be drafted.
AG: And you mentioned the Berrigan brothers, the priests.
BR: Yes, yes.
AG: Phil, the late Phil Berrigan —
AG: — and Father Dan Berrigan —
AG: — who’s still alive. Catonsville, how significant in 1969 was this for you? I wanted to go to a clip right now —
AG: — of the Catonsville action. That was Catonsville, Maryland, where a group of activists, led by Fathers Dan and Phil Berrigan, burned draft cards with napalm. They stole hundreds of draft records and torched them. They were sentenced to three years in prison, their action helping ignite a wave of direct actions against the draft in the Vietnam War.
Father Daniel Berrigan: We do not believe that nonviolence is dead, and that we don’t believe in interposing one form of violence for another, and that we believe that an action like this will still speak to our fellow Americans and bring home to them that a decent society is still possible, but it’s totally impossible if these files, and what they represent, are preserved and honored, and even defended, as those poor women tried to.
AG: That was Father Dan Berrigan, as they stood around in a circle and burned, with napalm — napalm being used in Vietnam — draft records.
BR: Yes, mm-hmm. That was a very dramatic moment for all of us, I believe. It took civil disobedience to another level and really brought us, clearly, to another level of protest against the war in Vietnam. And we followed their lead in targeting the draft as one of the real evil systems of that war. And that’s how we became involved in covert actions with draft boards in Philadelphia.
NS: And, John Raines, can you talk about your sense that the antiwar movement itself had been infiltrated by FBI informants?
JR: Oh, sure. I mean, that was obvious, for any of us who were involved in the civil rights movement, because it happened in the civil rights movement. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was all over the civil rights movement with infiltrators and surveillance, intense surveillance, and people that would report back on meetings and so on. And, of course, we’d all know that J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI went after Martin Luther King, tried to discredit him — indeed, even sent him a note suggesting that because of his activities with other women besides his wife, he now had no option but to commit suicide. That note was sent to Dr. King, suggesting — and it was from the FBI, suggesting that Dr. King commit suicide. So that we knew, from the civil rights actions, that J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI were very much against anything that promised significant social change. We brought that information, that knowledge, north with us when we came to the antiwar movement. And it became clear that the tactics he used to disrupt and destroy — try to destroy the protest movement in the South, he was using once again against the protesters against the war in Vietnam.
The problem was, J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable. He was a national icon. I mean, he had presidents who were afraid of him. The people that we elected to oversee J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI were either enamored of him or terrified of him. Nobody was holding him accountable. And that meant that somebody had to get objective evidence of what his FBI was doing. And that led us to the idea that Bill Davidon suggested to us: Let’s break into an FBI office, get their files and get what they’re doing in their own handwriting.
AG: You and Bill Davidon were professors.
AG: He a professor at Haverford, you a professor at Temple University.
AG: What did you feel about the risk that you were taking? Were you concerned about getting caught?
JR: Well, Bonnie and I were parents, and we had three kids under 10, and that was a very serious consideration. We had to be persuaded that we could get away with this. And we had learned nice burglar skills from priests and nuns. And we had cased the FBI office in Media very carefully.
AG: You had thought about Philadelphia, but thought it was too secure?
JR: Oh, yes, it was a big building downtown, as — you couldn’t touch that. But Media, you could. And we felt quite confident that if we could get in there and get out without leaving any physical evidence behind, that we could then disappear into the very, very large antiwar movement, thousands of people in the Philadelphia area.
AG: You had prepared, in case you were caught, to have your children taken care of?
BR: We had. We had. We knew the risks. We knew the jeopardy. We weren’t going to be reckless. We weren’t going to move ahead with our involvement except with the leadership of Bill Davidon, who we all had so much admiration and respect for. But we did feel that it was necessary to speak to John’s older brother and his wife and to my mother and father about caring for our children if — should the worst happen and we would be convicted and sent to federal prison.
AG: Keith Forsyth, you chose the night of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight —
AG: — to break in. Why? Why was this so significant, March 8th, 1971?
KF: Well, it was just — you know, there were many steps that we took to try to avoid getting caught, and this was one of them, because whoever suggested it — and I have no idea who it was — thought that it would add to the distraction, not only of the police, but of just people in general. The building in which the office was located had a live-in supervisor, and his apartment was directly below the FBI office. So, he was going to be on the next floor down while we were inside walking around opening cabinets. So, anything that could keep his mind off of the ambient sounds sounded like a good idea.
NS: How did you know that you would find what documents you would find, or did you know?
KF: We didn’t know. We were — we were pretty sure. You know, bureaucracies are the same everywhere. They love to keep records. But we really — we were taking a shot. So, in that sense, we got lucky that they did keep records.
AG: This brings Betty Medsger into the story, whose book this week, "The Burglary," reveals the identities of the activists involved in this burglary. Looks like J. Edgar Hoover found his match in this group of people. Talk about receiving in the mail the documents. You were a reporter at the time for The Washington Post.
BM: OK. I’d just like to say something about Bill Davidon, if I might, first, that the idea was Bill’s. And Bill participated in preparations for the book and the documentary that’s been made, "1971." And we should note that we’re all very sorry that Bill’s not with us. Bill died in November. But he was sort of a genius in coming up with this idea, because although many people in the various movements at that time thought that there was — there were FBI informers in their organizations, there was no evidence of that, and the public didn’t know. And Bill had this deep commitment that if the public could be presented with evidence, they would be very upset. Even though there — Hoover was an iconic figure, that if they knew that there was massive surveillance of the — political surveillance, that they would care and do something. And that’s what happened.
I was a reporter. And one day this envelope appeared in my mailbox. And it said it was from Liberty Publications — that was the return address — Media, Pa. That didn’t mean anything to me. But when I opened it, there was a cover letter, said it was from Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. That was a new organization to me. And there was — the letter explained that a group of eight people had burglarized an FBI office on the night of March 8th, and that enclosed were some of the files that they had removed from the office.
And some of those files were very shocking. I think the one — and you showed the excerpt from this on the Retro Report — the first shock — and this also resonated very much with the public when it was published and discussed — was the one that instructed agents to enhance the paranoia and then also make people think that there’s an FBI agent behind every mailbox. And that was a pretty stunning statement and said so much. And the burglars were — themselves, were shocked, I understand, when they found that the first — saw that document the first night after the burglary. So that stunned me.
And I guess the other files — there were many about individuals, and they were all serious, but the — one of the things that I remember most from those files was the truly blanket surveillance of African American people that was described. It was in Philadelphia, but it also prescribed national programs. And it was quite stunning. First, it described the surveillance. It took place in every place where people would gather — churches, classrooms, stores down the street, just everything. But it also specifically prescribed that every FBI agent was supposed to have an informer, just for the purpose of coming back every two weeks and talking to them about what they had observed about black Americans. And in Washington, D.C., at the time, that was six informers for every FBI agent informing on black Americans. The surveillance was so enormous that it led various people, rather sedate people in editorial offices and in Congress, to compare it to the Stasi, the dreaded secret police of East Germany.
NS: Could you talk about how the editors at The Washington Post responded when you showed them these documents?
BM: The editors responded very positively to them. I should point out that — two things. First, this was the first time that a journalist had ever received secret government documents from a source who had — from the outside, an outside source who had stolen the documents. So that tended to pose a different kind of consideration as to what you would do — in their minds, as to what you’d do with the documents. But it was a particularly tough decision for Katharine Graham, who until this time had never faced anything like this.
AG: The publisher.
BM: The publisher, Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, because it was the first time that she had been faced with a demand from the Nixon administration that she suppress a story. And she did not want to publish. And the in-house counsel, the lawyers, also did not want to publish. But two editors, from the beginning, realized it was a very important story and pushed it — Ben Bradlee and Ben Bagdikian. I was just back there innocently writing my story, talking — I had been a reporter in Philadelphia and was talking to sources from the past, confirming information. Didn’t know until 6 p.m. that there was a question as to whether or not they would publish. By 10 p.m. that night, she decided to publish.
AG: And talk about the reaction, and the reporters who did not get to publish the story, because you weren’t the only person that these activists sent the documents to.
BM: They sent them to five people. These are the first files that they released. They sent them to Senator George McGovern and Representative Parren Mitchell from Baltimore. And they immediately returned the files to the FBI when they received them and didn’t make them public. They sent them to three journalists. In addition to sending them to me, they sent them to Jack Nelson at the Washington Bureau of the Los Angeles Times —
AG: The great crusading reporter who wrote "Terror in the Night" about the Klan in the South.
BM: Right, and Tom Wicker, columnist then at The New York Times. Now, it’s also important to keep in mind, in addition to the fact that we didn’t really know — the public didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI, that very few journalists ever wrote investigative work or critical comment about the FBI. And Jack Nelson and Tom Wicker were two of about three or four who had, up until that point. At the L.A. Times, Jack never received the envelope, even though it was addressed to him, and it was delivered to the FBI immediately. I didn’t know this until years later, when I read the investigative report on the FBI’s investigation. It’s a little less clear what happened at the Times as to whether Tom Wicker received, and what they did do was the same thing: They immediately gave the files to the FBI. And — but they apparently kept them and copied them, unlike the L.A. Times, because the day after we broke the story, then they wrote stories on the same files.
AG: Keith, before we go to break, can you talk about parallels to today? It is hard to look at — and for a moment, I want to turn to the Church Committee hearings that took place a few years later. Senator Frank Church of Idaho led this investigation. The Senate’s Church Committee investigated the CIA and FBI’s misuse of power at home and abroad. The multi-year investigation in the mid-'70s followed the exposure of COINTELPRO, which stands for Counterintelligence Program — and it was the first time people had seen that word, was in the documents you released — examining the FBI and CIA's efforts to infiltrate and disrupt leftist organizations, the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, and much more. This is Senator Frank Church speaking during one of the committee’s hearings.
Sen. Frank Church: We have seen today the dark side of those activities, where many Americans, who were not even suspected of crime, were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited, and, at times, endangered.
AG: That was Senator Frank Church. The Church Committee hearings led to major changes in what the FBI could do, and also dealing with the press, as well. You listen to Frank Church, you could be hearing possible hearings today, though they haven’t started, to do with Edward Snowden.
AG: What are your thoughts on Edward Snowden today?
KF: I think there are some parallels. It’s not an exact parallel. But, to me, one of the most significant ones is that not long before Edward Snowden released these documents, James Clapper went in front of Congress and the American public and was asked a direct question whether the NSA was engaged in this kind of surveillance, and he said no, which was obviously a lie. And I think if he had said, "Oh, we can’t talk about that because that’s national security," I might have had some respect for that answer. But to come out and lie to the public about it — and, of course, not suffer any punishment as a result — so, to me, Edward Snowden — I’ve seen no evidence, personally, that Edward Snowden has released anything that was actually harmful to our national security. You know, certainly has been embarrassing, but, to me, the young man is definitely a whistleblower and has performed a great service by enabling us to have the conversation. You know, we couldn’t — we couldn’t have the conversation about whether this is right or wrong before, because we were not told about it. So he’s made that conversation possible, and I think — I think we owe him something, a debt for that.
AG: We’re going to break and come back to this conversation. Our guests are Keith Forsyth and Bonnie and John Raines. They were part of the — what they called themselves, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, activists during the Vietnam War era who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., and took the documents they got and sent them to The Washington Post and other publications to let people know what the FBI was doing. We’re also joined by the woman who has revealed the names of these activists — and we’ll talk about why they decided to come forward — Betty Medsger, former Washington Post reporter, author of "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI." Stay with us.
AG: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, "The War and Peace Report." I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our discussion looking at how activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pa., in 1971 and disclosed secrets about the FBI’s COINTELPRO program — that’s Counterintelligence Program — first came to public attention with the release of these documents. We are joined, as well as Bonnie and John Raines, who were among those who broke into the FBI office that day, March 8th, 1971, by the reporter who broke the story then and now, released the names of those involved with this break-in, Betty Medsger. She wrote "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI." We’re also joined by David Kairys, who has represented this group until this day for what, more than 40 years?
David Kairys: Forty-three years.
AG: Forty-three years. But, John Raines, why have you decided to come forward 43 years — what, 42 years later?
JR: Well, the simple answer is: A book came out. And, of course, that’s not accidental. We decided years ago that we would trust Betty with this story. And she’s done a wonderful job, spending years of research writing a very substantial book. It tells a very interesting story.
We decided that it was time to, once again, come forward with the question of government surveillance, government intimidation, and the right of citizens to vocally dissent. I think that the gasoline of democracy is the right to dissent, because wherever there’s power, wherever there’s privilege, power and privilege are going to try to remove, insofar as they can, from public discourse anything they want to do. That leaves the citizens’ right to dissent as the last line of defense for freedom. Now, that’s what we were faced with back in 1970s. I think that’s what we’re faced with once again today. It should not surprise us. I mean, it should not surprise us that those in power in Washington want to make the decisions that really count off stage, out of sight from the rest of us. But democracy depends upon the rights of citizens to have the information they need in order for them, the citizens — who are the sovereigns — for them to decide what the government should be doing and should not be doing. They must have that information so that they can make up their minds.
AG: Explain that moment that night when Betty Medsger came over and you revealed who you were. What year was it?
JR: I think that was in 1988. We had known Betty when she was a reporter there in Philadelphia.
AG: That was more than 20 years ago.
JR: Oh, more than 20 was ago. And Betty was then living in San Francisco, but she was on a trip to the East Coast. And we invited her for supper, and Betty was nice enough to say, "Sure, I’ll come." And I think it was — we had had supper, and finally, our youngest daughter, Mary, came down. She was, I think, 12 or 13, something like that. And without thinking about it, I just said, "Mary, come on in. We want you to meet Betty Medsger, because she was the one that we sent those FBI files to." And Betty’s chin dropped down to her chest, and it was out of the bag. That’s how it started.
NS: David Kairys, as the attorney who has worked on this case for so long, could you talk about the significance of the statute of limitations on the case, as well as what you saw as the illegality — what was indeed the illegality of what these documents exposed about what the FBI was doing?
DK: Well, sure. The statute of limitations, by any fair reading, is five years. The FBI themselves closed the file in 1976, because five years had elapsed and there was no charges. Excuse me. There are arguments one can make, but there’s really no legitimate or good-faith basis to bring any legal — any legal charges at this point.
As for the illegality of the FBI, they’re supposed to enforce the law. Here they are interposing themselves as almost a political counterforce to stop certain movements. And it had a direction to it: They were stopping left-liberal movements. And they were using techniques that we usually associate with state police in countries and systems that we usually think of as alien.
NS: And how did you come to become involved in the case?
DK: Well, I was regularly doing civil rights work, and I was — I would represent demonstrators of all kinds. And so, two of them checked with me before, what’s my home number. And they — Keith kids me that he’s still got my phone number from back then on his arm. And so, that was the beginning. I didn’t know then exactly what they were going to do, but then two of them got arrested in the Camden 28 case, where I was lead counsel.
AG: And, in fact, remarkably, five days before this break-in, Bill Davidon met with Henry Kissinger at the White House, the national security adviser for Richard Nixon.
AG: We don’t have time for the story, but we’re going to talk about it in our post-show interview, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. How was this secret kept for so many decades? It’s not just the two of you, John and Bonnie Raines; there were nine of you. One person dropped out. There were eight of you. This is decades later. How did you keep this secret?
BR: Well, we —
AG: A hundred FBI agents looking for you. And, Bonnie, you had gone into the FBI office in Media to case it out and pretend you were a young woman looking for an FBI job and sat with the official there.
BR: Mm-hmm, and did not know, following that, that there was a sketch that was then circulated of me by the FBI. It was — we knew —
AG: We have 30 seconds.
BR: We knew that we had to pull the curtain down, not meet after we did our work, and just not talk about it with anybody at all, because our work was done at that point, and we were not looking for anything more than for the general public and Congress to follow suit in a way that we hoped they would.
AG: Do you feel it accomplished what you wanted?
BR: I think, in certain ways. In certain ways, it did. We were encouraged when there was a Church Committee that was — that was taking their task seriously, and there were reforms that did take place.
AG: I want to thank you so much for all being with us, and also thank Johanna Hamilton. Her film, "1971," on the same subject, is just coming out. We’ll be interviewing her. The book is "The Burglary." Thanks so much, all, for joining us.